On a Broken Promise

If you happen to ever travel through London Heathrow Airport, you’ll literally see the world pass by you. People from all corners of the globe go through that international hub, and that traffic of world-wide guests is magnified by the fact that the British Empire used to be the world’s largest. With colonies on every continent of the world at one time (yes, even Europe–check out Gibraltar), it’s no wonder you can see a veritable United Nations pass through Heathrow.

In the 1800s, Britain still had a tight control over a sizeable amount of land in Africa. One of the colonies in Africa was what would become Rhodesia, now the independent nation of Zimbabwe. And in the late 1890s, the local people rose up to fight against the colonial power. Today, that largely forgotten and terribly violent war is known in the UK as the Second Matabele War. The name implies that there was a first Matabele War, and, of course, there was. Wars against colonial oppressors were fairly common across not only Africa but also Asia and other parts of the world where European, American, an other colonizing powers worked to subjugate people for monetary gain.

Into this Second Matabele War came a British officer whose wife would call him Robin, and, therefore, so shall we. Robin had risen from the rank of lieutenant and sometime scout/spy to becoming a major in the British Army by the time he arrived in Africa to help relieve the besieged British garrison in Bulawayo. In his short time there, Robin managed to work out an agreement with one of the leaders of the uprising for him to surrender peacefully. In return, Robin promised, the man would not be punished if he cooperated. So, acting on Robin’s word, the man surrendered–and was promptly arrested.

The man turned out to be not only a miliary leader of the local people, but he also carried the distinction of being somewhat of a holy man as well. His name was Uwini. When Uwini was arrested, he was accused of taking part in the killing of some British settlers in the area. The facts of the situation were disputed, but that didn’t seem to stop a military court from finding Uwini guilty of murder. They sentenced him to be executed by firing squad.

As one of the officers over the court martial board that sentenced Uwini, Robin had the verdict come across his desk. He had the option to commute the sentence, and, given that he had promised no harm would come to the man if he did surrender himself., probably should have commuted it. However, Robin did not do so. He signed off on the execution, and Uwnin was taken to the edge of a nearby jungle and executed for the killing of the settlers.

Well, even the British military knew this stank. They brought Robin before a military court of inquiry into his actions. However, the military court cleared him. After the verdict of innocence was announced, even the civil authorities in Bulawayo demanded an investigation and trial. This never happened, however, and the issue was dropped. Robin would later say at length that he had been completely exonerated of any wrongdoing. But people who knew him said that the incident dogged him inside.

Robin would go on to become a colonel and, finally, a general in the British Army. But that’s not why you know him. This man, who had his integrity (understandably) questioned, would go on to become an example to millions of how to live ones life with character, forthrightness, moral fortitude, and clean living.

Interestingly, Robin would later write that if a young person says, “On my honor it is so,” that means it exactly that, “just as if he had taken a most solemn oath.” In fact, this concept was so important to him, that Robert “Robin” Baden-Powell made this the first law of the Boy Scouts.


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